Wellbeing & Mental Health Matters: Halloween, life and death

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In our spot on the site where every week we talk about issues to do with wellbeing and mental health, a bit of a Halloween special.

Hello and welcome to Wellbeing and Mental Health Matters, a weekly check in to ask how you’re doing, and what’s spinning your plates. Right now, mine is drowning in a sea of pumpkins.

Halloween is my favourite time of the yea. It’s autumn, with its drifts of leave and fiery colours, that nip in the air, the cool nights. It’s the stars blazing from dark skies, a halo around the moon. It’s a sense that the world is slowing, dusting off its old clothes and settling down for sleep, recuperating and regenerating under the soil.

Perhaps I’m romanticising. But when is there are better time to get my goth on? Halloween invites us to open the door to the beyond, to take a peek at what scares us in the recesses of our mind, and drown it out with popcorn and fake blood.

You may think that this year there’s been enough darkness. Too many endings and not enough beginnings. That Halloween should be quietly shelved this year, while we look forward to the spring in which to renew ourselves.

It’s worth remembering what lies behind the Halloween holiday. Traditionally, in the UK, Halloween was observed as one of the four great religious festivals in the Celtic calendar. At Samhain, people observed the turning of the year from the light to the dark following harvest. It was a time for buttoning down and tucking in, ushered in with several days of feasting, drinking and music. Over the years it merged with the Christian All Souls festival of remembrance, mutating as it became synonymous with popular culture and the thrills and spills of gore.

In the year that keeps on taking, I will not be observing my usual Halloween holiday along with hundreds of other people who descend on a small fishing town in Yorkshire to parade their gothic finery, listen to live music and get stonkingly drunk. Whitby is effectively off limits to the multitude of goths, Steampunks and associated celebrants of the darker side of life who mark Halloween there as a rite of autumn.

In many ways, the Halloween gathering emulates that of our forebears: a mass gathering of like-minded people, feasting, building relationships and enjoying the odd ruckus. It also involves the physical pilgrimage, the walking in Bram Stoker’s footsteps up the Abbey steps, gazing out over that wild sea from the East Cliff where Lucy Westenra got her vamp on.

Observing my fellow festival goers on social media, I see we are all feeling a sense of loss, an emptiness at not being able to convene for our annual shindig. Whitby is more than a holiday, it’s a step out of life. Not going has brought it home to me how much everyone has lost this year, in terms of their own cultural habits and comfort. Lost cinema screenings, live gigs, flights to the sun. Our affirmation, if you like, of who we are under our skin. Of our tribe, the places we belong.

In the scheme of things, this is hopefully just a blip in the programme. We will move on from the horrors of 2020, back to our own respective normalities. But all around us there will be empty seats that were once full of vibrant life. Empty shops that once held someone’s dreams and aspirations. A hand that we can no longer hold, a joke we shared that you turn to make, but find that the person who got it is now a shadow of a memory.

For that is the other meaning behind Halloween. Not the schlocky joke side or the blood curdling horror of it all. It is about acknowledging the void between those of us living, and those that we have lost. The mists thin in the dark, and we see their faces, hear a whisper of a voice beloved to us on the breeze. We often shy away from death, of our fear both of loss and of losing ourselves. This is one day when we can open our hearts and raise a glass to those that we have loved and lost. For we all have departed souls, and it hurts to grieve, to acknowledge the bitterness of loss. For one day (and night), it’s ok to acknowledge the darkness that hovers at the edge of our lives.

This Halloween, even if you don’t embrace the festival itself, perhaps raise a glass to someone you have loved and lost. Acknowledge the good they brought to your world; the light of their memories may be a candle through the winter nights. Carve pumpkins to ward off the devil, stage your own mini Halloween film festival with candy eyeballs and broomsticks, taffeta and cobwebs.

Whatever you do, wherever you are, I raise a glass to say thank you for reading. Stay well.

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